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Cirque du today: November '12 is the month of the nouveau circus in Tampa Bay

Kooza camps in St. Pete, while a different Cirque company thrills at MOSI in Tampa.

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We've all threatened at one time to run away and join the circus. But what does that even mean today? The mystique of the big top’s nomadic, bohemian life with all its mystery and superstition may still enchant us, but today's entertainments offer a whole other bag of peanuts.

Locally, cirque fever has taken hold in triplicate. Along with Cirque du Soleil opening Kooza at Tropicana Field this weekend, there's the brand new Cirque Italia XII, presented by an Italian company headquartered in Sarasota and making history with its first Tampa performance at MOSI. Then there's Beth Brier’s new circus arts and dance school, now open in Clearwater, in addition to several other similar training institutions popping up throughout Central Florida.

Here and elsewhere, cirque shows have brought a new democracy to the circus realm. People can train to be an aerialist or contortionist at classes in their hometown without the aid of a fifth-generation Wallenda. Cirque tech people, set designers, costume designers and a host of other behind-the-scenes professionals have been ambitious in their originality, self-determination and inclusiveness, creating a new cultural standard.

Circus is Latin for “circle,” signifying its ring. The history of circuses has come full circle more than once. The short version: Animals were exploited in ancient Rome’s Circus Maximus. The fall of the empire led to human physical performances — animal training was considered a throwback, relegated to gypsies. Circuses of the mid-teen centuries in Europe began to brandish a mischievous humor and showcased scantily clad women. These provocative shows couldn’t survive amid the puritanism of the Protestant Reformation, and began to fold. In the 20th century, the traveling three-ring circus brought excitement to towns around the U.S., but its image in recent years has been muddied by lawsuits, horror stories and flashbacks of Roy Horn (of Vegas act Siegfried and Roy), who was mauled within an inch of his life by a Bengal tiger in 2003 — a tragedy that underscored the unnatural arrangement of animal and trainer.

Now, one-ring cirque offshoots like the Big Apple Circus (the subject of the excellent PBS documentary Circus) make allusions to the cheekier, darker and more physical performances of earlier eras — none achieving more renown than the Montreal-based Cirque Du Soleil, which now employs more than 1,300 artists from nearly 50 different countries. The company has traveled to 300 cities in more than 40 countries on six continents.

Beginning Fri., Nov. 9, Kooza will welcome Cirque du Soleil fans to its tent in downtown St. Pete — a swoopy white canopy that looks to have been built in an imaginary land of whipped cream. The show staged inside is a return to form for Cirque du Soleil, with an emphasis on acrobats and clowning. One act seamlessly transitions to the next, propelling a poignant narrative that speaks to the soul of the circus with a story about a lonely clown. Cirque du Soleil creator Guy Laliberté masterminded it with the writing and direction assistance of Tony winner David Shiner, a clown who got his start as a street mime in Paris.

Kooza offers more twists on Cirque du Soleil’s conceptual staging, colorful theatrics and mind-blowing sensory dynamics. The surface of the stage looks like a starry sky, with recessed lighting evoking the feel of a 19th-century theater. On it a traveling tower called the Bataclan, with Hindu-inspired design, reconfigures the performance space as it moves. Besides the traditional high wire, trapeze and balancing acts, unique spins include a unicycle and 1,600-pound Wheel of Death, which rotates at high speeds, powered by two in a bold display of acrobatics and teamwork.

Six musicians and two singers perform live during each performance on trumpet, trombone, bass, drums, percussion and keyboard. Klimt, Mad Max movies and motifs of India and Eastern Europe inform the costume design.

The show marks Cirque du Soleiul's seventh Tampa Bay performance. Past shows have included Quidam (2002); Alegría (2004) and Varekai (2005) in St. Petersburg, and in Tampa, Delirium (2006); Saltimbanco (2009), and Alegría (2011).

Kooza's wardrobe manager is a St. Petersburg native, Jason Brass. His decade-long Cirque stint took him to Tokyo for a year — his “very, very, very favorite city.” College friend Lisa Gibson, a wardrobe attendant at La Nouba, got him his first job with Cirque at the Orlando show.

The 1995 graduate of Gibbs-PCCA started his professional career at American Stage in the Park with The Merry Wives of Windsor. He learned to sew as a young child, sitting on his grandmother’s lap.

If Jason Brass found a way into Cirque du Soleil through his sewing skills, Beth Brier, the artistic director of BB’s Dance and Circus Arts’ Cirque Training Facility, hopes her organization will provide an avenue for local performers to join Cirque life, too. BB's is part of a “new wave” of circus schools that have sprouted up in the last 10 years, and she has expanded her school to offer classes on trapeze, acrobatics, Spanish web, hoop, and all the highly refined aesthetics of circus performance.

According to Brier, many performers in the large cirque touring companies are “Olympic champions or have been in circus their entire lives.” Her studio aims to develop the local talent pool for national success.

She has high hopes for the facility and what it could mean for Tampa Bay. “We want to build artists and get them hired by Cirque du Soleil.”

Brier has already trained performers. Her professional group, Moving Arts of Tampa Bay, has performed at Casa Tina’s Mexican Restaurant in Downtown Dunedin on Saturday and Sunday nights, at private functions, and public events throughout the Bay area.

Parents and junior acrobatic hopefuls can learn their tricks at a Holiday Cirque Intensive offered by B&B on Wed., Jan. 2, through Sat., Jan. 5.

Just south of the Skyway Bridge, a 32-year-old Milan-born entrepreneur named Manuel Rebecchi has established Cirque Italia. A spirited, outspoken Renaissance man who performed on trapeze at the tender age of 6, he studied mechanics and robotics and is a businessman with his fingers in multiple investment pies. The company’s show at MOSI, Cirque Italia XII, was named for the year it started and its 12 acts.

Earlier this year, Rebecchi helped in the efforts to restore an old circus arena in Venice, Fla. The training center and performance hall for acts of yesteryear was scheduled for demolition, and Cirque Italia brought in around $25,000 with a show called Aquatica.

Rebecchi says that he’s trying to bring “the middle” to his cirque by charging affordable ticket prices ($10-$40; Cirque du Soleil is $33-$104.50). His aim, he says, is to fill a 15-40-aged middle-class gap. “Rich old people go to Cirque du Soleil, and kids go to Ringling Brothers.”

Cirque Italia has been promoted as a circus alternative with elegance, quirky humor and highly experienced performers. The 10,000-square-foot arena seats 1,266. The 4-foot-high stage, he says, is like Broadway, and the encircling fountains recall Las Vegas' Bellagio. He even added a special flooring because “the ladies, they like to wear nice shoes.”

“With the tech, lights and performance, we don’t need to have animals,” Rebecchi said. “I have put a lot of money into creating the most beautiful show, and I want to keep the ticket prices where they are. I am willing to risk bankruptcy.”

Rebecchi is indeed willing to take chances, but it remains to be seen if he chooses the right ones. He said that his employees are self-insured independent contractors, calling into question the rights and safety of humans when animals aren’t the stars.

Regardless, Rebecchi’s passion about the circus is palpable; he grew up in it.

He expressed the most anger about the treatment of show animals, having had to train zebras when he was a young teenager, an experience that traumatized him — he witnessed mammals being electrically prodded in the genitals. Rebecchi added that he doesn’t think the modern three-ring circus has improved.

“These animals are not in their habitat. They’re not meant to tour the country in trailers and not have a moment to drink water before being moved to the floor to perform. It’s bullshit.”

Kent Roberts added to this report.

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